Friday, 22 August 2008

digital uses more neurons


There is a lot frothing up on how the Google Generation (which is actually a very misleading idea) is full of a bunch of cognitively myopic and depthless individuals just skimming from one digital distraction to another. And somewhere in that there is probably some truth for some people.

But the assumption that the endpoint of new web behaviours is neuromush is wrong. History teaches us that any new technology brings with it a grimly predictable cohort of detractors. It also teaches us that for every game-changing innovation - the alphabet, writing, printing - humans didn't end up mentally crippled but enriched, seriously enriched, in fact.

That's why - in the same spirit as Everything Bad is Good for You - it's nice amid all this gloom to know there are some historically alert digital optimists. Digital culture is such a massive improvement in many aspects to 'receive' culture*. As Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams put it in Wikinomics (p.47),
Rather than being passive recipients of mass consumer culture, the Net Gen spend time searching, reading, scrutinizing, authenticating, collaborating and organising.
So in that respect, Google is not really making us stupid. Perhaps, quite the opposite: all this new media may cause more cognitive sweat than the media before it.

Rewind ten years, people would read a book or an article and that was that. A few might make notes. Only a handful would write about it and publish, and typically on a professional basis. Back to today, and the same book or article generates way more thought than it would have done a decade earlier. Digital culture uses more neurons.

Added to that, what is also omitted from the view that the new represents a mental downgrade is that while we are outsourcing certain brain functions to silicon we are gaining literally superhuman abilities in the process. The critics focus on what is lost and ignore what is gained, like memory.

As Faris has neatly put it,
I think increasingly, our brains are less like databases and more like index servers
And it's better that way because actually I can store more, not less. My memory isn't atrophied by the internet, it's augmented. And that's the mark of some of the most transformational technologies: they extend our ability to keep information alive by outsourcing it.

*This is clumsy. Some digital stuff is obviously sit-back too.

aquajelly and airjelly

Thursday, 21 August 2008

more fragments


Why is advertising in social media not really working out? Because of a silent assumption that got forgotten in the move from trad to new media.

You can deploy car and beer spots during football matches; ads for age-defying cream and Heat during How to Look Good Naked; stuff for DIY during Grand Designs...I could go on.

And this makes a lot of sense. By knowing what your audience is like you can be more selective and hope your ad is hitting a bigger group for whom it is more relevant, rather than just splattering it randomly across the schedule.

This model has been carried across to the Internet, with superb success for Google who worked out how to automate the process with AdSense.

However, one of the things the traditional model never had to worry about was what the audience were doing. It didn't have worry because it knew: they were listening to something, or watching a show, or standing on the Tube, or whatever.

Because the model had this silent assumption when it was transferred to the new medium it got forgotten. The hidden fragment got left behind.

What are the audience doing online?

When people use Google, they're looking for information. When they use Amazon, they're buying (or researching). The ads are working here because people want information, it's welcome if its good enough.

When they use Facebook (or any other social media) they're expressing, communicating and interacting with others (being social not being cognitive). The same ads aren't working here for the same reason you'd be a bit miffed if someone marched into the pub, dropped a sausage in your pint, yaddered on about how delicious they are and, by the way, how they are half-price at the moment.

So what people are doing online is probably as important for click-through rates as who they are.

I haven't thought about specific examples yet for social networks, but essentially companies selling in this space should assist with communication and expression, not clutter it.

The Internet isn't one medium, it's fragmented media - and not just by who, but why what.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

smarter reviews

Once mobile internet gets properly off the ground, lots of shopping in the real world will change. It will change because prices and reviews - things normally all the way back at home - will suddenly be at your fingertips in stores. The buying decision is going to get another brain contributing.

But reviews have their problems.

Say I am swotting up on a new book I have heard is rather tasty or investigating a new camera so I don't have to mashup (read, lazily appropriate) others' photos on Flickr. I read a load of book reviews on various sites. For the camera, I come up against some sites wanting my money for their opinions, others with more reviews than I can possibly read and perhaps a couple of blog posts from some real keenos.

Here's my beef with all of this.

'Old' media stuff is dense and long but trustworthy and rich. It's also one person's view normally.

Customer reviews are helpful because they are likely to tell it like it is; they have no reason not to. Except some people can't tell it like it is even if they want to, making a chunk of customer reviews unhelpful by being unreadable, like this beauty from the BBC's gleefully entertaining Have Your Say (distilled here).

And even when people can get their thoughts in order, how do you know that what they like you are going to like? So you look at quite a few of these, try to average across opinion. That's a bit time-consuming. One quick way to do this is to look at things like the 5 stars on Amazon.

This is beautifully quick but often rather unhelpful: it doesn't tell you all that much. Added to that, fans swarm in and leave in their slaver pages of universally positive reviews. In its most extreme form this sort of review takes binary form.: thumbs up or down, cool or not, rotten or fresh. Essentially, the problem with taking lots of data and reducing them, is that it can only provide a dirty average.

Basically, the problems of reviews are that we have work hard to find them, when we do there is too much information overall and there is a poor summary of it. We need something that combines the best bits. Basically, something that is quick but rich:

So all the power of collaboration is used. All the time spent reading and cogitating is stripped away. The in-depth, expert stuff is there if you want it. And, most importantly, the reviews become a whole lot more powerful by taking into account who has left them.

This has probably been thought up somewhere before. All the same, I don't see this kind of thing anywhere. And it is the perfect sort of review system for mobile: lightweight, powerful, visual, personalised and genuinely useful.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

transactive digital memories

"Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
Samuel Johnson had the idea of transactive memory down before Wegner, Giuliano, and Hertel formally brought it to the table in 1985.

What it acknowledges is that there's memory in our heads, and memory that's elsewhere, usually other people's heads. Transactive memory is the smearing of a reality to a number of different minds to lighten the load on one.

Swap out the 'other people' in this arrangement and swap in the Internet. Feel familiar? As Clive Thompson said in Wired, "Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us."

Just as the nature of transactive memory in relationships or groups is only conspicuous by someone's absence, so it is when we are away from the Internet. Our memories are now neuronal and digital. Sounds rather cyborgish, doesn't it? But a hefty chunk of my memory - names, numbers, dates, addresses, quotations - are all outsourced.

Wegner and his mates should broaden their research to see what's going on with transactive digital memories.

early twitter

Sunday, 10 August 2008

circlesquare - sub-reminisce

Circlesquare - Sub-Reminisce from Bienvenido Cruz on Vimeo.

facebook and fireworks

Facebook: the social equivalent of watching the fireworks in the park on TV.

anxiogenic tv


There is a lot on how the Google Generation (which is actually a very misleading idea) is full of a bunch of cognitively myopic and depthless individuals just skimming from one digital distraction to another. And somewhere in that there is probably some truth for some people.

But the assumption that the endpoint of all these new web behaviours is neuromush for everyone is wrong. That's why it's nice when you hear something that says, actually all this new media causes more cognitive sweat than the media before it. It might even be making some of us a bit smarter.

It's the same with TV shows. They are getting more complicated and we are having to be better decoders to understand them. Even 'rubbish' like Big Brother forces us to track a large number of relationships, which have to be continually updated. If this example is fatuous, shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Prison Break, 24, Lost and so on are most certainly feistier than their antecedents.

As usual, someone else has thought about this a lot more and got it down on paper. Everything Bad is Good for You by Stephen Johnson argues that "that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years" (xv). I agree.

But there's something else that I have been feeling in the last five years when I watch television, which is increased anxiety. The reason for this is that I can no longer trust writers.

Somewhere things changed.

For me, this point came with Season 1 of 24. With everything I had watched up to that point it was a fairly good assumption that by the end of a film or season everything would be nicely tied up - the baddies dispensed, the objective achieved, the romance consummated. More than anything, writers brought their characters close to death but pulled them back again at the last moment.

Then audiences got bored of this, the assumption was so strong that it started to dilute the experience because the outcome could be predicted. The reaction was for writers to start being ruthless and, to a certain extent, inconsistent when it came to dispensing with characters.

Now audiences were never really sure who was going to live or not because instead of pulling all major characters back from death they started popping them off left, right and centre.

I believe Keifer Sutherland is the only major cast member remaining on the television show 24 after its 7 seasons. Prison Break in its third season is considerably thinner on characters than when it started.

This has the effect of pulling you deeper into shows, because you face the confusion and uncertainly the characters feels instead of being able to watch the show with the saftey net below you.

As Johnson has noted, things like multiple-threading in TV shows have forced us to sharpen up cognitively. But, increasingly this and other devices are coupled with wanton disregard for nearly all of a show's major characters, which has sharpened our anxiety.

Friday, 8 August 2008

solution to the prosumption dilemma

<span class=

Solution is in the middle ground. Companies should try to build platforms that open the door to prosumers without knocking down their own walls.

I think Apple has got this right. When its lead users started hacking the iPod with Podzilla, PodQuest and Encylopodia and jailbroke the first version of the iPhone, it did a bit of of commercial Jitsu, taking the force of the demand and turning it to its advantage with the SDK and iPhone apps store.

Here is perhaps the best example of the prosumption dilemma solved: Apple keeps control, appears open and adds value to its product way beyond what it could achieve alone through vast collaboration.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


Two things.

One. Vodafone should be doing something like this.

They could have a whole arsenal of apps to turn their positioning - make the most of now - into a something valuable for people and link it up in lovely ways to mobile and social platforms.

Two. It's so helpful when you come across a new site not to have to explain it in your blog but just embed the code for a video they provide, which does the job for you, thank you very much.

spencer higgins

There's just something very intriguing about this. You need to see it big.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

crime mashup

"It is simply unacceptable at this point in history that a citizen can use Web services to track the movies he is renting, the weather around his house, and the books he's recently purchased but cannot as easily monitor data regarding the quality of his drinking water, legislation, or regulations that will directly impact his work or personal life, what contracts are currently available to bid on for his state, or what crimes have recently occurred on his street."

James Willis, director of eGovernment for the Rhode Island Office, 2005
It is.

Or it was.

Now there's ZubediPI which tells me the West End is a bit dodgy when it comes to theft and violence amongst a whole host of other rather useful stuff.

i am

If an alien arrived on earth one of the first things it would note about our species was how much time we spent with each other. 'Humans are social creatures' it might jot down (see Cartwright and Zander, 1953).

If it had been around for a while, it might have added 'but this has been decreasing in the last few decades' (Putnam, 2000). And, maybe if it had been paying special attention, it might scribble something like 'increasingly people have fewer others with whom to discuss their most intimate thoughts and feelings' (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006).

As Ybarra et al (2008) sum up,
The success of the social networks is probably in no small part because they strengthened and made explicit these withering social connections we all naturally crave.

Orange's new campaign, which orbits around the strap line ‘I am’, mines this too.

What does 'I am' mean?

Simply, you are better off working together than you are by yourself, thus necessitating communication technology. You are the sum of the people you communicate with.

One of the nice things about this strategy is that it is actually true. It's not that staple of advertising - myth-making - but a statement of something fundamental about human interaction and that makes it fresh.

For one, you are smarter working together. Ybarra et al (2008) writing in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that social interaction (as little as 10 minutes) improved intellectual performance.

More social contact is correlated with well-being (Sinha & Verma, 1990; Triandis et al., 1986) and its absence is marked by depression (Gladstone, Parker, Malhi, & Wilhelm, 2007).

There is even some evidence to show that after controlling for level of health, fewer social connections are linked to an increased risk of death (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Yikes!

Orange is in the relationship business, not the mobile phone business any more.

And not only the relationships between each other but the relationships between all our different digital identities.

'I am' Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, YouTube, Amazon, Vimeo, Google, Dopplr, Wikipedia,, Stumble Upon the list goes on....

This unruly mass of services exists and yet there is nothing to tie them all together.

That is, until Orange’s offering, My Social Place, hits the scene in the autumn soldering all our online identities into one ball.

So ‘I am’ is a strategy that is timely in two ways. It fosters and facilitates being social, something we all need but aren't getting enough of. And it is digitally prescient, preparing for communicative life beyond simple mobile. More evidence of marketing and service dancing together so fast you can tell who's who.

But there is a final bit of cleverness in here. The social thing and the digital thing, as well as being two separate but rather nifty uses of the same strategy for ordinary people, are also commercially adroit when holding hands. As Cory Doctorow, in a speech at Cambridge last month, explains,
"The thing that the Internet is even better at than providing universal access to all human knowledge is nuking collaboration costs, getting rid of the cost of getting people together to do stuff…[This is] what allows us to be literally superhuman. That is to say that if you and someone else can do something that transcends that which you could do alone, then you have done something that is more than one human can do and is superhuman." (around 19 mins in)
'I am' in this sense perhaps acknowledges that what's around the corner is really big collaboration online and on-phone. And Orange is going to be a company to help out with all of that in its services, the branding seed of which is being planted now.

Pity the execution isn't more exciting and less pretentious. Still, early days.

search for 'i am'

Been waiting for to get a pic of the new Orange print campaign, but everywhere I seem to be at the moment the damned ad sneaks off somewhere.


I might be wrong - I'm probably wrong - but, isn't this the first big campaign in the UK to jettison URLs in favour a search term?

In case it has passed you by, the ad suggests you

search for 'I am'

in the spot normally reserved for a URL.

[Aside: 'I am' has to be the shortest sentence in English?]

This is a great improvement for the interested. Much better than having to remember "".

Of course, the Japanese have been doing this sort of thing for a bit, probably because their mobile market is so much more mature than ours.

But there doesn't appear to have been any SEO. Instead Google, Yahoo et al. seem to have profited rather nicely from this campaign (any of the Fallon people currently dating people at the search engines?)

People search for everything, sometimes even if they have the site in their bookmarks. No one really types in a whole web address any more. It's good to see brands acknowledge this.